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“The Big Short” Gets Singed by Inflamed e-Book Passions

An interesting little battle has erupted on Amazon over the reviews Michael Lewis‘ new book, “The Big Short,” is getting there. When people review the actual book, they give the work high marks (I’m reading it this week, and I have to agree — it’s fascinating and maddening, and Lewis’ prose is as sharp and elegant as ever).

But many 1-star reviews have been posted by people complaining because the book isn’t available for the Kindle.

Obviously, this isn’t Lewis’ fault, but his rating is collateral damage. And in a world of apomediation, a 3-star average hurts.

In fact, one could say the reviews are selling Lewis short.

The controversy has spilled out into the blogosphere and splashed out onto Amazon’s customer discussion pages. It shows how passionate people can be about their e-books, and how customers can use tools in unanticipated ways to attack policies and practices they dislike.

In this case, it appears to be the practice of delaying e-book releases until hardcover sales have had enough time to drive traditional revenue channels — probably for a spreadsheet that was created before the Kindle’s first anniversary.

Over at TechCrunch, in a post entitled, “Amazon: You Need to Change Your Idiotic Customer Reviews Policy Right Now,” Paul Carr writes:

I’ve written before about the flawed thinking of publishers who delay Kindle releases to protect hardback sales. It’s an idiotic move but it’s one that many publishers feel forced into due to Amazon’s policy of charging $9.99 for most popular Kindle titles. It’s loss-leader pricing for Amazon and publishers still get their full due, but the low digital price point discourages hardback sales which results – in the short term at least – in a drop in overall revenues.

However, while Carr thinks the customers posting 1-star reviews to complain are misguided, the fact is that they have little alternative. Amazon does have a link for potential purchasers to request that the publisher to make the Kindle version available, but when you’ve sunk a couple hundred dollars into an e-reader and an author in the sweet-spot for many e-reader early adopters (huge fan base, hot current topic, strong book tour on cool shows, etc.), it’s understandable that you want a megaphone for your heartfelt kvetching.

Customers have spent hundreds of dollars pursuing technological improvements to their time-management, information consumption, and entertainment lifestyles. When publishers or content providers of any type play games with them, there will be consequences. Technologies will be warped and abused. It’s hard to take sides in this — everyone’s got mud on them — but ultimately, if Lewis and his publisher want to make amends with people with open wallets, I’d suggest they suck it up and get that .mobi file to Amazon PDQ.

It would be a 5-star response.

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About Kent Anderson

I am the Founder of Caldera Publishing Solutions, a consultancy specializing in informed growth and smart strategy for academic, scientific, and scholarly publishers. I have worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of the STRIATUS/JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are my own.


6 thoughts on ““The Big Short” Gets Singed by Inflamed e-Book Passions

  1. Lewis (to some degree) is culpable; he’s a powerful enough author that he could have insisted that Norton not do this.

    Posted by John | Mar 27, 2010, 12:47 pm
    • Given that eBook sales are hovering around 2-3% of the market now (and were probably half that when he signed his contract), I doubt the worry of a backlash over this crossed his mind.

      Posted by David Crotty | Mar 27, 2010, 3:05 pm
      • True. I mean culpable in a technical sense. That said, you have to wonder why ebook sales are such a threat to hardcover sales, though.

        I wonder if the 1-star reviews even constitute a backlash that matters – that is, how many sales will be lost due to those reviews, vs. the number that might be gained when people download a sample to a Kindle and decide to go on and purchase the book?

        Posted by John | Mar 27, 2010, 6:04 pm
        • It’s really a question more of eBooks being a new market and publishers still figuring out how it works best for them. That’s why the whole MacMillan/Amazon stand-off was such a big deal. It gives publishers a chance to be flexible with their prices in order to figure out what works and what doesn’t (as opposed to simply accepting what’s best for Amazon), and allows for simultaneous release of eBooks and hardcovers in the future.

          But it’s unfair to blame the author–even the bigshots don’t get much, if any say in things like pricing or business schedules.

          Posted by David Crotty | Mar 27, 2010, 8:58 pm
  2. From Kents Blog Post:

    “However, while Carr thinks the customers posting 1-star reviews to complain are misguided, the fact is that they have little alternative.”

    Little alternative? What a joke. You are saying that giving a book you haven’t even read a 1-star review is one of very very few options you have? How about waiting until it gets released on kindle in a couple months, or buying the hardcover if they want to read it that bad?

    I mean, should owners of HD DVD Players give 1 star reviews to every movie that comes on on blu-ray (or owners of vcrs as well?). Should I, in January, have given the book a 1-star review because I really really really wanted to read it then, and didnt have the patience to wait until March? I mean, if I wanted to get the release date pushed up, what other alternative do I have, right?

    Posted by Mike | Mar 29, 2010, 3:34 pm
    • My intention was to note that because the Kindle is a proprietary Amazon device, and Lewis’ book wasn’t available on it, loyal Amazon customers on the Amazon site looking for something to buy for their Amazon device would naturally look for an Amazon-centric way to express their displeasure. While they could have clicked on the link to request that the publisher make “The Big Short” available for Kindle (and many may have), the emotionally satisfying complement or alternative right in front of them was to carpetbomb the ratings with their displeasure. Did it work? Well, it certainly got Amazon’s attention, created a firestorm the publisher has certainly heard about, and probably put other publishers on notice. So, really, it’s no joke.

      Blu-ray shops could only dream of such passionate users.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Mar 29, 2010, 3:45 pm

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The mission of the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) is "[t]o advance scholarly publishing and communication, and the professional development of its members through education, collaboration, and networking." SSP established The Scholarly Kitchen blog in February 2008 to keep SSP members and interested parties aware of new developments in publishing.
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